This Is What Life’s Like For A Feminist In A Conservative Bengali Family

Posted on September 11, 2016 in My Story, Sexism And Patriarchy

By Anonymous for Cake:

It’s been nearly five years now since I moved away from home to pursue a liberal arts education; and in all this time, one particular dilemma has continued to haunt me—reconciling my liberal, feminist ideas with that of my family’s ridiculously conservative and often bigoted ones.

Growing up in a middle-class Bengali family, Within my family, regressive and patriarchal beliefs run rife and sexism, casteism, homophobia and Islamophobia is so thoroughly internalized that I myself was blind to it till recently. Only when I joined a college with strong feminist sentiment did I realize how flawed and problematic my family’s beliefs had been; and then began a frustrating and all-consuming internal conflict that I still haven’t been able to shake off.

Why I Dread Going Home For The Holidays

During my first year of undergrad, I had been slightly homesick, so I was looking forward to meeting my family during winter holidays; but all that excitement faded within the first few days of my arrival.

It was December 2012, and news of the Nirbhaya Rape Case was everywhere. At one point, my father, after commenting on the horrifying nature of the situation, had said something on the lines of ‘she shouldn’t have stayed out so late’. It was such a casual, throwaway comment that I wouldn’t even have paid much attention to it earlier; but my newly-feminist consciousness just could not ignore it. I called my father out on his comment, which led to a fight.

That instance shook me, but once I started paying attention, I saw how these casually sexist and harmful comments were everywhere in my family. They are part of everyday conversations, and are almost dismissed as something ‘normal’. But when you try to speak up against them, you are immediately chided – as if you are a threat to the status quo, which they cannot handle.

The frequency of these comments is almost disturbing. During a gathering, an uncle once said, “Why are you wasting time in higher studies? You’ll end up married and in the kitchen anyway.” This was supposed to be a light-hearted jibe, and many (including my father) had laughed along and when I called them out, both my uncle and father had said, “Relax, it was just a joke.”

On another occasion, when a family friend had broached the subject of my marriage prospects, my father had responded (again, as a joke): “You never know with the kids of today. These days girls want to marry girls, and what not.” In one sentence, he had managed to imply that same-sex relationships were some kind of a fad that the ‘kids of today’ were into. Comments like these kept on coming, and I kept trying to protest them the best I could.

However, there are times when my protests against their beliefs do get through to them (even if it’s in a convoluted way). When the debate surrounding Section 377 was at its peak in December 2013 (coinciding with my winter holidays again), my parents had supported the reinstatement of the law and said things like—’Homosexuality is unnatural,’ ‘Gays are against Indian culture,’ and so on. In an outburst, I had thoroughly challenged their ideas and in an attempt to correct their misconceptions, had done my best to explain to them how they were going wrong. I don’t know whether they really took away anything from what I said, but their remarks soon died down. Whether their mindsets had actually changed or whether they were just trying to appease me, I am not sure; but either way, I saw this as a small victory.

But sadly, moments like these are far less frequent than those when their bigotry bares its claws, and they continue to make ridiculous statements.

It’s Hard To Come To Terms With

These fights have become a regular staple by now – because they are not just an ideological conflict. The source of the resentment is intrinsically tied to my position as the daughter (as a woman, who has to pander to certain behavioral expectations, who cannot afford to have too strong an opinion of her own) and to the patriarchal family structure which stipulates that the parents always ‘know better’. Homecomings for me are, more often than not, cause for conflict. But here’s the thing. I love my parents, and am ridiculously attached to them. Hence, my struggle against their regressive beliefs is rendered even more difficult and emotionally turbulent.

I find myself in this limbo of proudly advocating my own feminist beliefs, and then feeling guilty for souring my relationship with my parents. To make them realize the repercussions of the kind of beliefs they foster, I have sometimes ended up saying something extremely harsh or drastic, and then feeling terrible for hurting them. But when I analyze this particular phenomenon, I realize it’s a product of the patriarchy itself. From a very young age, I’ve been taught that ‘good girls don’t raise their voices’, they ‘don’t challenge the authority of their parents,’ – subtle ways of silencing women and not allowing them to dissent.

To be liberal in a conservative family means to constantly question yourself and to often live in fear and self-doubt, because you don’t know where you fit in, and you don’t have a safe space. Patriarchal conditioning plants self-doubt into the minds of even the most seasoned feminists, and causes them to think, ‘Am I right or are they are right?’

The original article was published here on Cake.


Image source: mukerjichinmoy/Flickr